This past Saturday, while passing through Richmond, I decided to visit the J.E.B. Stuart statue on Monument Avenue. Lately it seems that I have been in Stuart’s shadow. Beginning in the last week of July, I prepped for the ECW Symposium Tour of Brandy Station. After a short break, the preparation will resume for tours and talks in September and October. In between, I decided to spend part of my time on an overview of his operations in August 1862. The Affair at Verdiersville and the Raid at Catlett’s Station present a microcosm of the Confederate cavalryman.
Stuart barely escaped capture in the early morning hours of August 18 at Verdiersville east of Orange Court House. Brig. Gen. Robert Toombs certainly shares the bulk of the blame for leaving Raccoon Ford on the Rapidan unguarded, allowing the 1st Michigan Cavalry and 5th New York Cavalry to cross and nearly scoop up Stuart. However, Stuart completely underestimated the time required for Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade to reach the Confederate army from Hanover Court House. Stuart failed to inform Robert E. Lee of this matter and impress upon his subordinate the necessity of arriving in accordance with specified timetable. Additionally, dispatches captured by the Union cavalry gave away the Confederate plan to attack John Pope, who in turn withdrew to a new position along the north bank of the Rappahannock. The episode was an embarrassment for Stuart and reflected the worst of his character.
Stuart was born into a slave holding family in southwestern Virginia. During various periods of his life, he personally owned several slaves. It was probably a foregone conclusion as to where Stuart would cast his lot if and when the issue of slavery boiled over into war. A few weeks after South Carolina seceded, Stuart, a lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Cavalry, wrote:
“For my part I have had not hesitancy from the first that, right or wrong, alone or otherwise, I go with Virginia…Of course every true patriot deplores even the possibility of disunion, yet let its blessing not be purchased at too great a price. Put equality and independence in one scale and Union in the other, and if the latter outweigh the former, I for one would…throw my sabre in the scale consecrated by the principles and blood our forefathers–our constitutional rights without which the Union is a mere mockery.”
Stuart fought for a vision of what he believed the United States should be. Brother officers with whom he served, such as John Sedgwick, fought for what the United States is. The conflict claimed the lives of both men.
Redemption for Verdiersville came a few days later when Stuart surprised the enemy outpost at Catlett’s Station. Along with Pope’s personal possessions, Stuart came away with the Union general’s dispatch book. It contained papers which outlined Pope’s intention of forging a junction with Maj. Gen. George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac and expressed concerns over his supply line, the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. This information confirmed Robert E. Lee’s assumptions about the intentions of the Federals, exposed a weakness, and gave Lee an advantage over his opponent. Lee decided to strike at Pope’s jugular. By the end of the month, Lee had defeated Pope at Second Manassas and was on the precipice of his first Northern invasion. Catlett’s Station illustrated the best of Stuart.
Stuart was likely one of the best cavalry officers of the war. He possessed a deep understanding of the value of the mounted arm, how it could be employed for the strategic and tactical benefit of an army. One of these aspects, the lightning raid, was put on display that summer. Stuart also excelled in the field of intelligence. Similar to his “Ride Around McClellan”, the raid at Catlett’s Station garnered information that allowed Lee to formulate a plan which ultimately led to victory. His old friend Sedgwick purportedly once said “Stuart is the greatest cavalry officer ever foaled in North America.”
Standing at the intersection of Monument and Lombardy Avenues, Stuart’s monument is located less than a mile from the location where he died on the night of May 12, 1864. It is a clear, cool, morning which is uncommon for this time of the year. Stuart towers above the traffic circle. He sits astride his mount, head turned over his right shoulder. There still seems to be so much more to learn about Stuart and the period in which he lived.